Gear Up: Does Recurrent Training Work?

Am I really getting safer?

Gear Up Learjet 31A

Gear Up Learjet 31A

** FlightSafety's Lear 31A simulator can throw
some challenging curve balls. Better to
experience them in the comfort of a building
than on a dark, stormy night.**

“Let's face it , some of the items on the checklist are written in blood,” our sim instructor says. It is day three of recurrent training. My training partner and I sit up straight. These words compel us to think carefully about why we are there and what we are doing. It means that accidents, once investigated, have led to changed and augmented checklists. This is a painful, iterative process.

Proving that recurrent training in any aircraft type prevents accidents is a statistical challenge. Accidents are infrequent enough, thank God, that it is hard to prove that this type of prevention works. We know that pilots who have received training and are current die in airplane crashes. Not often, but it happens. We also know that pilots who are poorly trained end up dying in accidents. We see the ads that tout the value of training, as reported by pilots who have survived inflight emergencies and credit their training with saving their lives. But these are anecdotal reports; they don’t really prove that recurrent training saves lives.

The insurance companies have concluded that recurrent training in turboprops saves money, if not lives. In order to insure the Cheyenne that my wife, Cathy, and I own, I must attend recurrent training at an approved site. In order to fly Part 135 in jets, the FAA stipulates not only that I attend recurrent training but also that I perform tasks in the simulator to certain standards. My favorite is the V1 cut on takeoff with RVR of 500 feet. At least you can’t see much.

In my previous life as a cancer surgeon, the value of recurrent training was not yet an established standard. Physicians are skeptical — doctors are trained to be empiricists. If it has not been proved in a randomized double-blind controlled trial, they do not believe it. And because they don’t believe that training, CRM and checklists reduce the likelihood of hurting a patient, they resist using the very things that aviators now accept as professional standards. Why malpractice carriers don’t insist is a puzzle to me.

All of this becomes abundantly clear to me when I train yearly in the Lear 31A that I fly for Elite Air in St. Petersburg, Florida, and in the Cheyenne. This year I asked about the evidence for recurrent proficiency training at SimCom in Orlando, where I do Cheyenne training, and at FlightSafety in Atlanta, where I do the Learjet.

When I climbed out of the sim at SimCom this year, after shooting the Localizer ZDME-E approach to Aspen, I asked a simple question: Why in the world would anybody attempt this approach without practicing it first in the simulator? The step-down fixes come so fast and the end of the approach leaves the airplane so high above the airport that you have to force the nose down in order to see it. I can’t imagine anything but a skein of missed approaches without prior training. With the remarkable SimCom visuals, though, I think I could make it in.

What if I lost an engine on that approach? After a few days at SimCom, a certain sense of competency sets in, so I am reasonably confident that I would likely survive. Not a guarantee, but a sense of reassurance. No doubt a real emergency would scare me to death, especially in that part of the country, but I think I would have a set of basic skills and a familiarity with the procedures that would be lifesaving. After several sessions of unimaginable faults and emergencies piled on top of each other and compounded, I always marvel at how well everything works when I get back in my own airplane. I look at 58 Whiskey with renewed appreciation, though I wish it would fly those GPS approaches as crisply as the SimCom Cheyenne.

The atmosphere at SimCom is a combination of approachability and dedication to precision. The training is always one-to-one or one-to-two if you have a training partner, as I do. The instructors have thousands of hours in type. The visuals in the sims are really lifelike and can be customized.

When I asked the question about the demonstrated effectiveness of this type of program, I got three interesting responses. CEO Wally David caught my attention when he said “I suppose it is human nature to think ‘It will never happen to me,’ but the human cost of not being prepared is so catastrophically high. From March 2011 through February 2012, there were 11 accidents involving 24 fatalities in aircraft we train that had a remarkably common characteristic. In each case, the pilot contacted us about training but chose not to attend.”

SimCom’s COO, Tracy Brannon, spoke about the skepticism common among pilots who are unfamiliar with sim training. “Simulator training can be viewed as unrealistic and intimidating for those who have not had the experience,” he said. They usually change their minds, he added. As President Eric Hinson said, “nothing prepares you better than practice.”

Our Cheyenne is in SimCom’s sweet spot: an owner-flown turboprop. One of the benefits to me is the cross-pollination that takes place. Other pilots drag their stories into the training center, and the instructors pass these near misses and mechanical glitches on to us. It is a great way to get hundreds of hours of experience vicariously.

FlightSafety in Atlanta has a somewhat different, though in some cases overlapping, clientele. Their bread and butter are corporate pilots flying jets and military pilots coming up to speed on the King Air 350. This year I had a great partner in class, David Schoettle, a man with 15 years of Learjet PIC experience. When I got a bird strike that took out the left pitot-static system and resulted in zero airspeed and an erratic altimeter, I was thinking of the Air France A330 that crashed into the Atlantic a few years ago. “I am going to maintain an attitude and a power setting that I know is compatible with level flight at this altitude,” I said. David quickly pointed out that I could easily move his ADC (air data computer) information to my side and skip all the drama. The man had been here before. A Virgin Atlantic captain once told me that if all the air data are deleted, the attitude/power technique “won’t be pretty, but will likely be survivable.”

Ed Klonoski runs the Atlanta center. When asked about definitive proof of value, he said FlightSafety trains a large majority of corporate pilots, and yet their clients account for only a small proportion of accidents. He was pretty specific and noted that initial type ratings were in large part a weeding-out process. Quoting FSI’s founder, Al Ueltschi, he said, “You are not buying a type rating. You are buying a chance to earn a type rating.” FlightSafety has been known to refund a pilot’s training costs rather than issue a certificate that was not earned.

When I recounted the bird-strike event to Klonoski, he said, “We have ever-improving technology. Situation awareness is much, much better. We have become cockpit managers. But when the technology fails or confuses us, we may have less stick-and-rudder skill precisely because of the automation and technology.”

I asked if one could spot a pilot heading for trouble. “It is a combination of skills and attitude. Sometimes pilots with substandard skills are very self-aware. Sometimes they are as bad at assessing their skills as they are at flying an airplane.”

The week after finishing training, I found myself picking my way through large cells on the way to Teterboro, New Jersey. New York Approach was advertising severe weather procedures in effect. When I finally got to smooth (I did not say clear) air and lined up for the ILS 19, the words of an instructor rang in my head. When I asked how long it took to assess a pilot's skill and attitude, he said, "I can tell by the way they get in the seat."

What, I wondered, did he see in me? A checklist written in blood? Or the careful aviator I hold myself to be?

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